Our activities to date include exploring archival material at the Institute Archives and the MIT Museum, carrying out a survey of black alumni, and conducting numerous interviews with black students, alumni, faculty, and staff, along with select non-black faculty and administrators who have played important roles in the recruitment and retention of blacks at MIT.
Materials preserved in the Institute Archives and Special Collections constitute MIT’s collective memory. These materials provide a core body of raw data.
The Black History collection helps produce sharp, vivid, substantive pictures of the roles and experiences of blacks at MIT.
This project is committed to new models of collaborative, online archiving; cataloging and making available online oral history interviews, scanned documents, digital images and videos already collected by project partners; adding new records to the collection through direct outreach and collaborative collecting among diverse local institutions and individuals.
Oral history is a valuable evidentiary tool for exploring topics such as the role and experience of blacks at MIT. By systematically recording oral testimony based on human memory and experience, we are able to supplement and enrich the store of more traditional historical evidence such as archives and the print literature. In addition to black students, alumni, faculty, and staff, a number of non-black faculty and administrators are included, especially those whose role at the Institute has had an impact on policies affecting blacks, for example in the area of recruitment and affirmative action.
As a supplement to the oral histories, black alumni are surveyed by mail. Their responses to a range of questions on biographical background, experience at MIT, post-MIT experience, and general attitudes and opinions are recorded and analyzed.
Among the archival collections concerned primarily with blacks at MIT are the records of the Office of Minority Education, 1969-1991; records of the Black Alumni/ae of MIT (BAMIT), 1979-1991; and the personal papers of the late Phyllis Wallace, 1955-1993, MIT’s first and to date only tenured black woman professor. These collections can be counted on one hand.
Nevertheless, more than a hundred other collections whose focus is not blacks or minorities include relevant files and other documentation concerning issues of minority recruitment, equal opportunity, affirmative action, race relations, personnel, student performance, and other matters. We have received valuable information from the Office of Admissions and expect to get key confirmatory student data from the Office of the Registrar, providing rich and useful appendixes in my materials for decades.
Identification of Black Individuals
Identification of students by race at MIT is difficult because the Institute does not
appear to have recorded students’ racial origin until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and even then it is unclear how systematic the practice was. However, a considerable amount of photographic evidence (especially individual and group class portraits) along with occasional indicators on official transcripts, dean’s cards, and alumni records–the notations “colored,” “negro,” and “mulatto,” for example–survive to provide a basis for compiling a reasonable, if not thoroughly comprehensive, list of black students.
Visual identification from photographs presents its own difficulties, and is often
unreliable since some blacks may appear white and some whites appear black; the
whole issue of blacks “passing for white” by design raises yet another set of problems. In addition, not all members of any specified class elected to sit for photographic portraits, so the evidence itself is incomplete.